I thought I was over being scared. Horror movies just weren't doing it for me anymore. Then I switched the channel one night. It was after one a.m. I don't remember the exact channel but the movie was Prince of Darkness. John Carpenter's nuclear waste-colored film unexpectedly chilled me. One scene in particular, where a shadowy figure stands in the doorway of a decrepit church while a static-y voice provides a warning, hit me right in the heart. Since then I have always looked upon Prince of Darkness as one of the better horror films.
To my surprise, most critics considered Prince of Darkness a turd when it was released. Since then some have defended the film, but most still consider this satanic movie one of Carpenter's lesser lights. I am here to say that it's one of his best.
Prince of Darkness is one of those horror films were the intensity is always present. There is no slow build. Rather, the world created by Prince of Darkness feels unhinged right from the very start. Set in an oddly uninhabited Los Angeles, Prince of Darkness deals with a giant, green cylinder. This particular cylinder is located in the basement of an abandoned Catholic Church in the rough side of town. Unbeknownst to most, the church was once the domain of the Brotherhood of Sleep--an ancient and highly secret order in charge of protecting Christendom from evil. That's where the green water comes in.
But first, the last remaining member of the Brotherhood of Sleep dies. In his absence, an English priest (played by Donald Pleasance) calls upon a theoretical physicist named Professor Howard Birack (played by Victor Wong) to investigate the strange cylinder. Birack brings along his graduate students (played by Jameson Parker, Lisa Blount, Dennis Dun, and Dirk Blocker). This group is joined by another team of academics and together they decide to stay the night at the church in order to scientifically study the cylinder's contents.
The weirdness begins almost immediately. On the outside, the team is stalked by a veritable army of the homeless. Led by a pale-faced bum played by Alice Cooper, the vagrants clearly know that big, bad evil is inside of the church. When not shuffling like zombies outside of the church, they wait in packs, stare at the sun, and make friends with all kinds of creepy crawlies. They also commit a few murders.
Inside, the team starts to deteriorate when a researcher named Susan (played by Anne Howard) is infected by the water itself. If you've seen any possession film that involves black bile being regurgitated directly into a victim's mouth, then you already know what Susan experiences. At the same time, the team's Latin expert, Lisa (played by Ann Yen) translates the scared text of the Brotherhood of Sleep. The text is a startling confession that rewrites the entire history of Christianity. Specifically, the text speaks of an Anti-God, a primordial deity who was worshipped on Earth before God. Satan, it turns out, is the Anti-God's son. After both were purged in the great biblical flood, the Anti-God was relegated to the realm of anti-mater, while Satan was made corporeal in the form of green water. Thus the team realizes that they are now in a race to save the world.
As the possessed Susan kills, then reanimates team members one by one, the remaining uninfected barricade themselves in rooms or try and fight back. In one scene, a sleeping student named Kelly (played by Susan Blanchard), who had earlier worn a strange mark on her arm after bumping into some equipment down in the basement, is really given the works. Through the night and into the morning, Kelly's body is turned into a giant scab wound, while her stomach shows all the signs of a growing womb. Eventually, Kelly's demonic waterboarding turns her into the carrier of Satan.
As Satan, Kelly tries to bring her father back into this realm via the use of mirrors. When the first mirror (a small, compact one used for applying make-up) proves insufficient, Kelly finds a larger one and places her hand into the glass. The glass becomes water and within seconds, we see that there is a second hand in the water. Kelly tries to pull the Anti-God through and manages to bring the beast's arm into view (side note: the Anti-God's hand looks suspiciously like the one sported by the Lord of Darkness in 1985's Legend), but she is ultimately thwarted by Catherine (Blount), who shoves Kelly into the water. Catherine goes into the water as well, so when the priest smashes the glass, the young graduate student is lost forever.
Or is she? In the film's final moments, Brian (Parker), Catherine's former lover and a fellow graduate student, sees the same reoccurring nightmare of the Anti-God standing in the church's doorway, but this time it's Catherine instead of the ancient deity.
Part of John Carpenter's "Apocalypse Trilogy" (other entries are The Thing and In the Mouth of Madness), Prince of Darkness is clearly a Lovecraft-inspired tale of cosmic horror. From the use of "Danforth" (taken from HPL's Mountains of Madness) to the entire cosmology of the Anti-God, Prince of Darkness drips with the eldritch. Carpenter's own touches are present as well, for the synth-heavy score, the muted coloring, and the presence of a silent, human, and yet somehow inhuman mob (see the gangsters in Assault on Precinct 13 and Michael Myers in the Halloween franchise) are all staples of his oeuvre. Furthermore, the remnants of Prince of Darkness can be found in 1988's They Live, another tale set in a surreal version of Los Angeles. Both films are spectacular, but of the two, They Live is more popular and more critically-acclaimed. Prince of Darkness is just as good, and insofar as plots go, it's probably Carpenter's best work.